Yesterday I headed over to the wilds of Southwark, to talk about beer marketing. Someone wanted to know my perspective – as an outsider – on beer. So it got me thinking, and here are some of my thoughts. Many of these also apply to wine marketing, but for now, I’m considering beer.
The beer world is a bit of a bubble.
If you think of the marketing space of all potential beer drinkers, much of it is empty. But there’s a highly populated corner, where the highly involved consumers, most of the beer writers, and the trade are all found. This is the beer bubble. It’s a problem when it comes to innovation and marketing, because the people in the bubble think everyone is like them.
CAMRA (the campaign for real ale) has been helpful in preserving the great British cask-conditioned ales. But now CAMRA is becoming a problem in itself. It creates an unnecessary division between cask and keg beers, rather than championing all great beers. I recently picked up a guide to bottled beers. It was a lovely-looking book, but I couldn’t find my favourite bottled beers in it. Why? Because the book is published by CAMRA, and the likes of Brewdog and St Peters aren’t bottled-conditioned beers, so they don’t get in. This is ludicrous.
I also think that the writers that CAMRA sponsor aren’t all good enough to take the category further. Many of them are looking backwards rather than forwards.
The continued emphasis on the pub as the only legitimate place for beer consumption is a mistake. I love a good British pub, and I love a good cask ale. But this is just one element of the beer ‘space’. For beer to have a future, new drinkers need to be recruited. New beer flavours and styles need to emerge. New occasions for drinking need to be thought about. And why is beer so male? The issue of where beer is consumed should be secondary to the drink.
Innovation is needed in the beer category. I’m thrilled to see the likes of Brewdog, Bath Ales, St Peters and Innis & Gunn making really interesting beers and marketing them well. The packaging of beer is really important. It could be that the future of beer is going to be driven by bottled beers as more consumers look to drink at home.
When I travel to the USA, I find a really vibrant craft beer scene that has broken through into bars and restaurants. You can usually find really interesting beer lists in these establishments, and the US craft beer scene is making some characterful beers that make some of the UK breweries’ offerings seem a bit limited. It’s as if many UK brewers are stuck in a rut, afraid of producing beers with really distinctive flavours, and using very homogeneous marketing and packaging options.
One country that makes brilliant beers but doesn’t really market them very well is Belgium. The flavours are fantastic; the packaging unlikely to win new converts. They’re great, but they are stuck in a niche. Belgian beers have the great advantage that they are quite gastronomic, and beer with food is an area where there needs to be more emphasis.
Beer could be much better. Consumers are currently being offered a limited selection of flavours, and very few commentators are managing to get out of the beer bubble to speak to them. What’s needed is a change in thinking, a fresh way of approaching beer, and new, innovative brands emerging to help consumers explore the different flavour possibilities of beer in a way that appeals to them. There’s nothing wrong with traditional cask ales, but there is something wrong with people who think that they are the only legitimate or interesting expression of beer here in the UK.